Teaching Torture

Intelligence officers detain a man who built a bomb that will soon explode: If he refuses to talk, should you torture him? An alleged terrorist is walking the streets of Karachi: Is it okay to grab him and jail him in a Middle Eastern country where he is likely to face torture? Or should you simply send down a Hellfire missile, sidestepping the torture debate but not the moral one?

These are some of the questions I’ve asked my students in my master’s-level class on “Terrorism and Counterterrorism,” which I’ve taught at Georgetown University for more than a decade. The class examines controversial U.S. programs over the years, as well as the dilemmas faced by other democracies, whether Israel, where the high court allowed tough interrogations while trying to limit abuse in its longtime fight against terrorism, or France, whose use of torture helped devastate insurgents in Algeria in the mid-20th century — but also discredited the French government and eventually led to the French withdrawal from the colony.

My students are not wide-eyed undergrads. Some are junior military officers back from hard fighting, who in 15 years will be among our nation’s top military officials. Others have been or will be intelligence analysts or homeland security officials charged with stopping terrorists or patrolling cyberspace. A few have even interrogated alleged terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan and here in the United States. Nor are they all Americans — some come from countries that face more immediate and daily threats of terrorism.

The report on CIA interrogations released by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday is important not just because it forces us to grapple with right and wrong today, but because it can be used as a teaching tool for future military and government leaders, who will no doubt be influenced by its findings and the debates it sparks.

When I came to Georgetown University in 2003 and began teaching about terrorism, the shadow of 9/11 hung over all discussions. Everyone (myself included) thought there would be another mass-casualty attack on the United States. Acceptance of torture was not quite universal — I remember being impressed by the courage of one young student who insisted that torture was wrong, even if it saved many lives — but it was close.

Yet, as successive classes came and went and no major attack occurred on U.S. soil, and as reports of mistakes and abuses trickled out, skepticism grew steadily. Now few of my students see torture as necessary, even in extreme circumstances. I wonder if another attack would change this yet again.

The class discussions have grown more sophisticated. For many years students tried to have it both ways. They wanted the option of coming down hard, but only on confirmed terrorists. When we discussed how intelligence might be flawed or incomplete (the Senate report’s finding that 26 of the 119 detainees in secret prisons did not meet the standard for detention is not a particularly high error rate, given how the program worked), they were caught between their belief that America must be tough when needed and their reluctance to hurt innocents. Other students wanted torture to be illegal — but wanted officials to break the law when they felt it was necessary, with the sin upon their heads. When I explained that this would inevitably lead to either over-caution or unnecessary abuse, they, too, were flummoxed.

Students’ own experiences have often advanced the discussion far more than the assigned readings or my lectures. A former Army interrogator described his frustration trying to sort out responsibility for a set of IED attacks in Iraq and how, years later, he still didn’t know the truth. A civilian student had been waterboarded as part of a training exercise. A quiet and poised man, he exuded authority when he declared that yes, waterboarding was torture and should never be used.

As with the Senate report, the students’ focus is often on practicality, not morality. They are more interested in whether something works rather than whether it’s right. Even when I push students to declare whether they think torture is “wrong,” those who do tend to argue that it produces false information, not that it contradicts fundamental American values and human decency. Though I don’t relish the prospect of discussing “rectal feeding” in future classes, learning about specifics helps: It’s one thing to talk about torture in the abstract, it’s another to wallow in the details of its inhumanity.

Students are much more comfortable with renditions — the extrajudicial transfers of alleged terrorists, usually to a third country — than with torture. Many of the recipient countries have poor human rights records, and the risk of torture there is high. Students have thought that the benefit of getting an alleged terrorist off the street is worth the risk of torture or mistaken identity. What is immoral for the United States to do is fine for an ally to do on our behalf. U.S. hands can still be clean, at least in public.

Nor do targeted killings of non-Americans elicit much concern. Students tend to believe that being in a war zone changes the rules for evidence and due process dramatically, but that once a suspect is in U.S. custody, his rights again kick in. Part of the problem with the war on terrorism, of course, is that jihadists are active in many countries, from Pakistan and Syria to Somalia and Yemen, and their ranks include groups that did not exist on Sept. 11, 2001. So allowing killings “only” in a recognized war zone or “only” against al-Qaeda does not neatly fit today’s reality.

Students with military backgrounds tend to be the most concerned about human rights. Part of it may be their military training, which stresses the distinction between combatants and noncombatants. Part of it also may be enlightened self-interest: The rules that protect terrorists from torture someday might protect them or their comrades should they fall into enemy hands. But part of it, I think, is a maturity and awareness, gained from painful experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, that programs that seem logical in Washington come off as muddled, contradictory and treacherous for those in the field who must carry them out — the same people who are held responsible when things go poorly.

My students hail from a generation shaped by 9/11 and two — now three — wars in the Muslim world, and they want to contribute to this fight, or to avoid future messes. I hope they recognize, when interpreting legal authorities, designing programs and carrying out the wishes of their political masters, that what seems like a watershed event might fade to the background and that the winds might blow in another direction.

I fear that America has not learned this. We oscillate between demanding that our government “do something” about a hard problem and expressing outrage when officials go too far — or when the public changes its mind. I hope my students learn to be cautious about public opinion, especially when it appears permissive. When they assume leadership roles in political and military life, they must build detention, interrogation and counterterrorism policies and programs that will endure, regardless of the philosophy of who is in the White House, regardless of the week’s polls.

In 2003, when I began teaching, this would have meant keeping in mind that the lone student objecting to particular interrogation methods may soon come to represent the majority opinion; in 2014, it might mean keeping open controversial programs, such as indefinite detentions in Guantanamo. But constantly shifting between liberal and conservative extremes will be a recipe for failure.

It is gratifying to watch my students wrestle with the dilemmas of counterterrorism policies in a free society. They don’t come up with all the answers, but by at least posing the right questions, they’ll be ready to make tough decisions when it matters most.

This piece originally appeared in
The Washington Post